Being a Network of Congregations and Why That Got Going (2005)

First appeared in the Dialogue Quarterly, fall of 2005

Let me say right off: we may use the 21st century word “network” to describe ourselves, but what we are doing is as old as Jesus. As usual, we’re ancient/future in our outlook.

That’s why we needed to put out this issue of the Dialogue. We wanted to focus on the network of cells and congregations that forms Circle of Hope because we sometimes seem strange to people. Supposedly, being a Network it is hard to “get.”

Maybe that is because people have been “got” by other thinking so the Bible is hard to “get.” One can hardly take a step in the Bible without running into God working through what might be called a network of people or without being called on by Jesus to form one!

I’m not sure the writers of the Bible would be able to “get” how most Christians in this era tolerate the enculturation of Christianity to the point that most Christians can’t form networks. Don’t you think they would be appalled by our racially and ethnically segregated worship? Wouldn’t they be amazed that many Christians think their country, their city, their neighborhood, their church, their cell is better than, or in competition with others? Wouldn’t they be puzzled at how many people resent the supposed imposition faith relationships make on their individual “freedom?” I do.

Like we are doing, I think the Bible-writers, if parachuted into Philadelphia or born here, would be very determined to perfect a network. They’d do it even when people in G’town complained about going “clear down to” Broad and Washington. They’d step it up when people in Kensington said, “So many people in the other congregations are so old!” They’d keep working it out when people in South Philly lost track of the fact that other congregations exist and vice versa, and vice vice versa.

So let me try to help us keep working with this. My goal is to take us back to some of the scripture that gave us a few of the major reasons we decided to be the church the way we are. If we hope to keep building a network of love and trust in our distant, skeptical culture, we’ll need a strong foundation to stand on.

  1. Actually, we became a network TOO. The Holy Spirit has been inspiring similar things from the beginning.

We had the blessing of inventing how we thought God would plant a church for the next generation in Philly. We came up with an ancient/future answer: He’s going to do it like God is always doing things – bringing people face to face with him and with each other again.

Jesus had his own idea of “net” work:

 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore.” Matt. 13:47-8

We’re all kinds of fish in one net, too. Paul had lots of pictures to describe a network. This one is directed against individualists who can’t seem to stay connected.

Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. Col. 2:18- 19

We want to live connected to the head, and so to each other like a body is held together.

2. We had the basic goal to survive as diverse, touchable, incarnations of Jesus in a neighborhood.

We had the inspiration to do something a little harder than corralling a market share by appealing to felt needs and using clever branding. We want to be real and we want to live in our neighborhoods. So we came up with a both/and method for meeting that challenging goal. Each congregation stays small enough to be touchable and the church (network) is big enough to survive. We want the intimacy of smaller and the capacity of bigger.

For the writers of the Bible, this is common sense:

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. Ecclesiastes 4:12

Jesus and his people are always up against a lot. Standing alone makes us sitting ducks for evil. Intertwined, we are hard to break into wreckable pieces. We’re not proud enough, as individuals or congregations, to take the dangerous path of going it alone, just “getting ours” or just being “us.”

  1. We wanted to do our part to knit together Philadelphia with love

When we looked at Philadelphia’s balkanized condition, it cried out for reconciliation, and still does. Lot’s of people know about this, but very few people, especially Christians, organize to do much about it. We thought it would be a cop out not to do our part, so we planned to be a network, crossing the boundaries between the neighborhoods with our own love. We are neighborhood-based and citywide. Sometimes we use the word “glocal,” since Christians are transnational — global and local.

This is the kind of goal Paul would recommend, don’t you think? It is the kind of thing he says he was trying to do, too:

My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Colossians 2:2-3

 We want to demonstrate this “unity in love” to a world that hasn’t seen it much and which thinks it is impractical. The newer translation quoted above traded the more literal “knit together” in love for “united.” I like to think of us as knitting – each person, each cell, each congregation linking with the others to form a whole piece of material. When you hear Paul talking about that, he seems to be implying that if we DON’T do that knitting, we will not have the “full riches of complete understanding.“ I think he is right. What’s more, if we aren’t knitters others won’t get a true picture of Jesus from us, as well.

  1. We wanted to give people an opportunity to get healthy and exercise their capabilities. Multiplicity helps.

The organic growth of cells propels new people into responsibility all the time because new leaders are needed when they multiply and everyone’s gifts are required to do the mutual care of each little “body.” We decentralized our mission efforts too, and called for people to start their own teams to lead us in whatever the Spirit could generate from us. This way of doing things creates ferment. We like that “chaos” because it requires the Spirit of God to generate it, direct it and keep us together in it. Having many people engaged heightens our sense of dignity and accountability. So we are flexible and accountable at the same time.

 Plus, I think pushing multiplicity is the kind of approach God has always used. The first church is the best example. After Stephen riled up the leaders in Jerusalem, the first church was attacked and forced out of town into the nearby territory. By telling the story of Jesus, they created the first network of churches.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off menand women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Acts 8:1-4

When you have a system that is ordered by common love and faith and directed by the Holy Spirit it seems as crisis-ridden as Acts 8, at times. But handing everyone the responsibility to do their part wherever they are planted and expecting them to keep together in love seems like the best way to keep everyone growing into their fullness.

  1. The next generation is not a mass market, and we didn’t want to treat it like a market, at all.

Yes, yes, making church like a TV show “works.” A lot of things work that we wish did not work because people still don’t seem to understand what will kill them. Sometimes it seems pigheaded, but we don’t like to pander to people’s worst instincts just so they’ll come to a meeting, give money, or just like us. What we are trying to do instead is deliver the life and message of Jesus as a community in Christ. We want to be a safe place for people to explore God’s love as they are now. And we want to be discerning enough to keep our eyes open for where they are going to be next. We’re relevant and predictable at the same time. God knows how to speak everyone’s language, but that never makes the message inconsistent.

Some people have thought it is a little suspicious when they realize that we’re hard to “pin down.” We’re more of an amoeba than a corporation. But I think Paul was that relationship-oriented, too. Even when he was writing to believers he had never met, he presumed a common bond that would result in some good thing:

I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong– that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. Romans 1:11-12

Such mutuality forms a character trait that says a lot more about Jesus than most arguments about the Bible. In our postmodern era, being a people is more compelling than talking about what someone ought to “buy.” So, as cells, as congregations, between our congregations, and in relationship to the world at large we are trying to perfect sharing. We’re replicating the picture Paul paints in his letters:

God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 1 Cor. 12:24-7

We may not have as well-developed and consistent character as we would like, but we are who God has. We accept that like he does. We’re not advertising ourselves. We are not a product. We’re a people.

That’s a lot of stuff in a few paragraphs, maybe too much, maybe too pared-down to make all the sense I would like. I offer it to help keep the dialogue going so we can listen to God and each other and end up creating the church the Lord would like to use next. So far, I think we have done a good job of listening and trying to keep up with him. We have, appropriately, bitten off more than we can chew and need God’s help to enable us to be what we are called to be. Let’s keep chewing.

Being Circle of Hope, “the network of cells and congregations who form one church in many neighborhoods” can seem a bit strange. Some people find it hard to “get.” But somehow that seems appropriate, since the world, in general, doesn’t seem to get God too well, at all. But I think God gets us and that makes all the difference to me.

One thought on “Being a Network of Congregations and Why That Got Going (2005)

Leave a Reply